Being a young employee, a new employee, a low-level employee in an organization that wants to do evil can be a terrible situation to be in.
As the New York Times reports it, Ina and David Steiner, an innocuous couple living in Natick, Massachusetts, ran a sort of trade publication called EcommerceBytes read by those who sold stuff over the internet on sites like Etsy and eBay. eBay’s then-CEO Devin Wenig and communications chief Steve Wymer didn’t like it when Ina Steiner disclosed that Wenig made 152 times the salary of the average worker. Indeed, they didn’t like lots of other things that she published about eBay. Messages between Wenig and Wymer included: “We are going to crush this lady.” “Take her down.” “If you are ever going to take her down, now is the time.” “Hatred is a sin. I am very sinful.” “She is a biased troll who needs to get BURNED DOWN.”
The job of crushing the Steiners fell to eBay’s Global Security and Resiliency unit, run by James Baugh and staffed in part by retired law enforcement officials. One young member of the unit was Veronica Zea, a young, new employee. Baugh, Zea, and others from e-Bay traveled to Massachusetts where they spied on the Steiners, doxed the Steiners, sent them a package containing a bloody pig mask, a box of cockroaches, fly larvae and live spiders. They had $70 worth of pizzas delivered to the Steiners with a demand for payment at 4:30am. They tweeted anonymous violent threats, and sent the Steiners a book titled “Surviving the Loss of a Spouse.” They bought tools to break into the Steiner’s garage to place a tracing device on their car. And on and on. Fortunately, the police fairly soon caught up with Baugh and his unit, six of whom have been indicted.
Veronica Zea is one of those six. She was in Boston with the team. She later said that she did little other than drive a rental car as instructed and call her mom to cry about how she hated her job. But she didn’t quit. And she didn’t blow the whistle. Why not? She had to know what she was helping e-Bay do was wrong.
Zea regrets that the Steiners had to suffer such terror, wondering who was doing these things to them: “It’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t I leave? But in the moment, I was terrified and stuck. I am so sorry. I regret playing even a small role here. If I could go back in time and prevent the Steiners from experiencing this in any way, I would do so in a heartbeat.”
For most of us, it is easy to understand why Veronica Zea did not act.
Zea was a mere contract worker who had the goal of being hired by eBay as an employee. Saying ‘no’ to a boss would have been very difficult for her for at least two reasons. First, we are all wired to be obedient to authority. Second, Zea was in a precarious position both employment-wise and finance-wise. Another employee who balked was indeed fired. The self-serving bias would have inclined her to view the things that she had been ordered to do, things she would need to do to be hired by eBay, as morally acceptable even if they gave her an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Ethical fading would have played a role, because Zea’s desire to please her boss and keep her job would have been her focus; ethical considerations might well have faded away. This is especially so because it would have been tempting to defer to superiors. As the Times wrote: it had to be tempting to “[g]o along with the plan, trusting that the ex-police captains on your team know the difference between right and wrong…”
Additionally, Baugh frequently played movie clips for the employees, trying to bond the team. He showed a clip from Meet the Fockers about a CIA agent’s “circle of trust.” He talked about a “circle of trust” with employees like Zea, building up the in-group/out-group bias, which might have inclined Zea to continue to play on her “team” against the Steiner “team.”
More than any of our other Ethics Unwrapped videos, Veronica Zea needed to watch our Giving Voice to Values series, where Mary Gentile explains how people who know what the right thing to do is can act on that knowledge to live consistently with their own values. More important than anything else, Zea and all of us who know that we might be caught in a similar moral trap should remember Gentile’s advice that the most important thing we can do is to say out loud to ourselves and to our friends and mentors that we will stand up for the right when asked to do wrong. Pre-scripting is perhaps the most effective tool against moral failure.
At a minimum, right here, right now—promise yourself that you will never send anyone a box of live cockroaches!
Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2021).
Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values (2010).
Rachel Lerman, “Former eBay Executives Charged with Cyberstalking after Allegedly Sending Bloody Pig Mask to Bloggers,” Washington Post, June 15, 2020.
Adi Robertson, “Former eBay Security Director Arrested for Harassing Journalists with Live Cockroaches,” The Verge, June 15, 2020.
Natasha Singer, “Ex-eBay Workers Sent Critics Live Cockroaches and a Bloody Pig Mask, U.S. Says,” New York Times, June 15, 2020.
David Streitfeld, “Inside eBay’s Cockroach Cult: The Ghastly Story of a Stalking Scandal,” The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2020.
Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-fading
Giving Voice to Values: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/series/giving-voice-to-values
Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority
Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
In-group/out-group bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group